In my younger years, whenever I was handed a slum book for signing, I would often write under “Ambition”, the vocation of my dreams: “To be a priest”. I never knew exactly what motivating force(s) led me to decide on such a holy aspiration, considering that at age 10 or so, I was into petty domestic theft—pilfering 5 centavo coins from my Ingkung’s empty Newport cigarette pack that doubled as his coin purse, when he’s not looking. It may be because I had a Monsignor for an uncle, Fr. Manuel del Rosario, parish priest of San Roque Church in Blumentritt for over 30 years. Or it may had something to do with the visual appeal of wearing a soutana matched with a gold-embroidered chasuble and fancy headgear. Then again, it may just had come from my mother’s inescapable power of suggestion. Anyway, the closest I ever got to my dream was spending my high school at Sacred Heart Seminary, extern department. By then, my interests had shifted and my ambition irrevocably changed.
Of late, the priestly vocation has fallen into hard times what with the dwindling number of seminarians and the current attack on priests with hormones gone berserk. But in the early part of the century, to have a priest in the family meant singular esteem and distinction. Priests were generally accorded with reverence and their families looked up to with respect. Becoming a priest after all, involved years of disciplined education, rigid character formation and profound spiritual preparations under spartan conditions, making him, in effect, more than your average ordinary person.
Take the case of the country’s first Filipino priests, Pampanga’s own sons who fought adversities and suffered unjust discrimination in pursuit of their religious calling. Archbishop Diego Camacho y Avila is credited for initiating the training of Filipino aspirants for priesthood when he headed Manila’s archdiocese on 13 September 1697. Before that, only Spaniards were allowed to enter into priesthood.
Francisco Baluyot of Guagua, Pampanga broke barriers by becoming the 1st known indio priest, who, upon ordination in 1698, was assigned to the archdiocese of Cebu. Soon, more Kapampangan priests were blazing new trails: Alfonso Baluyot y Garcia, the 1st indio missionary was sent to the northern diocese of Nueva Segovia, Abra de Vigan. The 1st Filipino pastor, Blas de Sta. Rosa, became the cura of Tabuco (now Cabuyao), Laguna, after a series of competitive exams. Upon his death, he bequeathed an “obra pia” for the perpetual support of his parish. Juan Mañago became the 1st Filipino chaplain for both the royal regiment and hospitals. In September 1705, another Baluyot—Martin Baluyot Panlasigui was ordained by Bishop Andres Gonzales of Nueva Caceres, and nominated for the curacy of Abuyan, Tayabas. The same bishop had a change of heart and refused to install him to his post, even after the governor general gave his approval--clearly, a discriminatory act. Fr. Martin Baluyot assumed his post only in 1711, years after Gonzales’s death.
By the twentieth century, seminaries like San Carlos in Mandaluyong were graduating men of the cloth at a steady rate. Newly-ordained priests from this era (1910-1930s) include these young Kapampangans, who sent out real photo souvenir postcards such as these to friends, relatives, madrinos and padrinos (rich sponsors who supported the education less privileged seminarians). While conditions have considerably improved, these young priests still had to endure the physical rigors of ministering the spiritual needs of people in far-flung Pampanga barrios and sitios, often trudging dirt roads or riding horseback to reach their constituents.
The very young Rev. Fr. Andres Bituin, whose roots are in Betis, is pictured in the 1st photo. In 1956, he was a Monsignor, still serving San Guillermo parish in Bacolor, with Fr. Jose Guiao as his coadjutor. The accomplished Fr. Bituin rose to become a Vicario Forane while his younger first cousin, Rev. Fr. Cosme Bituin, became a Vicario General and parish priest of the Holy Rosary Parish in Angeles City in the 1950s.
The 2nd photo dated 12 May 1918, and sent from Guagua shows Rev. Fr. Nicanor Banzali, who served Arayat Parish for quite some time in the 1940s. By the mid 50s, the now senior priest was the cura parocco of San Miguel Arcangel Parish in Masantol with Fr. Arsenio Yusi as his coadjutor. The much-loved Fr. Teodoro Tantengco, a graduate of San Carlos Seminary, was assigned to Masantol early in his career, but by 1947, he was stationed at 287 Tayuman, Sta. Cruz, Manila. He left a lot of photographic documents that help us plot out his priestly life.The last photo shows Rev. Fr. Osmundo Aguilar, who sent this postcard from San Pedro, Makati in 1932. Fifteen years later, he was heading the parish of Guagua.
In this world of materialism, more and more young men are finding little attraction to the vocation of priesthood—even if the Church seemed to have gone easy a bit. Gone are the days when priests were never caught without their holy garb; today, you see them in casual shirts and denims, with signature sunglasses to match, ready to out-hip any young dude. In deportment, priests are more casual too--they sing on TV, dance, consort with politicos, and goodness gracious, they have their own boy bands too.
On the other hand, the respectable distance that people observed while dealing with priests have narrowed considerably; and when familiarity breeds comfort, temptation is just around the corner. Some say it is the fault of the Church, a sad consequence of bending the rules too much. Others insist that it is the severity of the rules that is causing the turmoil within the Church, which has failed to keep abreast with the times. Then there are those who maintain it is the inherent frailty of man. But if one were to re-trace the life stories of young Kapampangan priests of yore, you would find, in their years of service to God and humanity, the triumph of the spirit over the weakness of the flesh in the most trying of times.
(10 August 2002)